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THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Bills Already a Burden for Some

Impact: From owners of small businesses to a woman on Social Security, utility customers fear that a rate hike might be more than they can handle.

March 26, 2001|GEOFFREY MOHAN and JOE MOZINGO and ANA BEATRIZ CHOLO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The lights have already been dimmed in Teresita's Restaurant in East Los Angeles. Now the prices may go up.

The 100-watt porch light on Edith Keller's mobile home in Bell was turned off, and now she can only watch as her bills suck up more of her Social Security check.

And Sylvia Yu of Temple City may even go back to Mexico, rather than face the $200-a-month electric bill that now may soar even higher.

"I was just talking to my mom about moving back to Mexico," Yu said. "The cost of living is too much here."

For Southland residents already living on the fringe of their budgets, another utility rate hike could send them over the edge.

For Southland residents already dealing with the struggling economy, high natural gas bills and rolling blackouts, another utility rate hike could send some over the edge. Many are already living on the fringe of their budgets.

It's enough to inspire Chris Consalvo to get out of the electric era. She's seriously considering candles and firewood for her one-bedroom Culver City house, where electricity bills were so high this winter, the 31-year-old social worker pays them on installments.

"What's going through my mind is going back to the basic elements," a frustrated Consalvo said Sunday, as word filtered out that on Tuesday the PUC will consider allowing a utility rate increase. "I'll get a wind-up clock and a wood-burning stove and call it a day, seriously." she vowed.

Claudia McClellan, 35, said she may dip into her 12-year-old daughter's college fund to pay for the increase. The San Fernando resident works 12 hours a day, seven days a week as manager of Electra Plus furniture and appliance store..

Margarita Figueroa, 56, has already had to take on side jobs just to save her El Monte hair salon, where she worries that the power could cut out on the blow dryers at any moment. So when the immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, isn't cutting hair, she's altering as many as 20 pairs of pants a day for $2 each. When asked to, she readily cuts friends' lawns. All the money from salon customers, she says, barely covers the shop's utilities.

"At most, I make enough to pay for the business--not to enjoy other things," Figueroa said Sunday. "I don't think there's honesty in these [rate hikes.] It's just done to be greedy and it really complicates things, not only for me, but for my clientele, most of whom are poor."

Nor does Figueroa escape the energy crunch and rate hikes at her La Puente home.

"The lights, the gas, the water--all has gone up," she said. "We have less children in the house than last year, but the bills keep going up. How is that possible?"

Even some business owners who don't face rate increases because they are served by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power are worried about blackouts.

"If the power goes, ice cream melts, the milk can go bad," said Morteza Javado, who owns a deli in Palms. "They are really killing me," he said, as he pointed to a disconnect notice for failing to pay a $800 bill on time. "For a small business like this, without that much profit, that's a lot."

Antonio Hernandez Campos, manager of Teresita's, not only dimmed the lights in his popular family eatery in East Los Angeles, he set the thermostat to a less comfortable 72 degrees and stopped using some appliances.

"I'm really worried about this summer, because it's going to be hot," said Hernandez, whose family raised the business from a parking-lot taco stand in 1983. Two can still dine here for $20. But not for long. Hernandez said Sunday he may be raising prices to keep the business going.

"It's going to be a good chunk of money," he said about any rate hike. "We were paying $1,500 a month last summer as it is. We'll be OK, but we'll have to make an adjustment."

There is little room for adjustment elsewhere. Consalvo, for example, hasn't used her dishwasher in six months. When she received an astronomical bill several months ago--the result of heating her home with a space heater--she nearly fainted.

"It was just crazy the amount they were asking," she said. "I don't use my dishwasher. I use minimal resources. I'm a bare-minimum person anyway."

At the La Fiesta discount store on Whittier Boulevard, which sells everything from children's toys to cellular telephones, manager Juan Cevallos shut down the air conditioning last week, though a massive speaker still pumped melancholy ranchero music out toward shoppers. "We have to keep it on or people don't come; No one knows we're here," he explained.

"People with big bucks, it doesn't matter much," Cevallos said of threatened rate hikes. "But business is tough for us."

Ira Kohan, a partner in the Vista Discount Store down the boulevard from Cevallos, was running one small desktop fan to cool himself, while the air stagnated in the rest of the store. "I can turn off some extra lighting, but not everything, because we have refrigerators."

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